Over the last few weeks there have been two contrasting media stories about zoo-kept Gorillas, one of man’s closest evolutionary relatives. The first inundated the web when Harambe, a Western Lowland Gorilla, was shot dead to protect the life of a 3-year-old boy who had slipped into the animal’s enclosure at Cincinatti Zoo. The global social media scorn was poured not on the zoo, but on the boy’s mother who was accused of “unacceptable negligence” (she was subsequently cleared by the Ohio state prosecutor).
The second Gorilla related story came on 30th May. Partly in response to the Harambe incident, the BBC chose to celebrate what would have been the 70th Birthday of Guy the Gorilla, a celebrated Great Ape exhibit at London’s Regent’s Park Zoo during the 60’s and 70’s. The point was made that on the one hand the Cincinnati Zoo incident reminded us that Gorillas are not entirely harmless creatures, while Guy the Gorilla was an almost singular force in dispelling the popularly held “King Kong” myth of gorillas being savage, murderous brutes.
When people pay to visit a modern zoo, they are seeking a connection with nature, consciously or not. They value being able to see representatives of the bewildering array of wildlife from around the world. It is a recognition that the existence of such creatures in the natural world helps us to define what it is to be human, reminds us that we are part of that natural world and reminds us that there is something bigger out there than human society with its social media, cities, television and wars. It holds a mirror up and tells us that we are, as Jared Diamond put it, the “Third Chimpanzee”.
Our mission at Carbon Tanzania is to see people reconnected with Nature. We aim to do this by linking our customers, people and companies to natural, community owned forests in Tanzania through the action of buying forest-derived carbon offsets. Because the areas in which we work are both biologically and culturally important for the indigenous communities who live in and around them, the revenues generated from the sale of our carbon offsets have much greater impacts than simply saving trees. The purchase of one of our tree certificates is actually a guarantee that wildlife, their habitat and indigenous communities’ homelands will be protected and maintained for the benefit of both into the future. But the reality is that without actually visiting these stunning natural landscapes that are being protected through our projects, it is hard to genuinely “feel” this connection. And like it or not, in a world where very few people are privileged enough to spend time in the wild surrounded by raw nature, Zoos provide this connection.
And while I am one of the lucky ones who lives and works routinely in beautiful, wildlife rich rangelends, my journey began at a zoo in 1973, staring into the implacable eyes of Guy the Gorilla. I even wrote a FaceBook post about it:
“What can I say? I can certainly trace my interest in the natural world and its mind-boggling diversity back to a visit to London Zoo in 1973 to see Guy the Gorilla. I even wrote my first University essay about the experience and how it influenced my understanding of our evolutionary history. But the keeping of such sentient creatures in captivity is clearly far from ideal, and I, like many wildlife biologists, want to see more sophisticated curation of large mammal species in zoos and other wildlife facilities. But if their presence in urban zoological exhibits leads to enough people being inspired to think about the natural world and its importance in all our lives, both physical and spiritual, then it is hard to argue against the keeping of some rare and charismatic species in captivity. A Gordian Knot if ever there was one!”
But can we, like Alexander the Great, cut through it?